Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables is universally recognized as an iconic, ground-breaking work of Gothic literature. When we think Gothic, we rightly think of haunted houses, shrieking ghosts, and things that go bump in the night. What if we read The House of the Seven Gables as a murder mystery?
If we did – and as I’ll show below, Hawthorne gives us legitimate reasons for doing so – then our study of House of the Seven Gables would focus on the question of who killed Colonel Pyncheon in 1692? Any serious examination of the Mysteries of the House of the Seven Gables must begin with this question.
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In the 1820’s of the novel’s present, in an unidentified town that the author positions as Salem, Massachusetts, the House is an oozing, decaying, cob-webbed, curtain-shuttered thing. We find inhabited by two wasting descendants of a legendary 17th-century Puritan soldier and judge, who built the house, and whom Hawthorne refers to only by the name of “Colonel Pyncheon.”
This 17th-century Colonel Pyncheon casts a long shadow over the novel’s 19th-century Pyncheon House and family. The Colonel amassed the fortune which sustained his heirs long after his death. But his means of doing so – he stole the land after he framed the landowner for witchcraft, and saw him hanged amid the Salem Witch Trials – have cursed his family line with darkness and defeat.
This Pyncheon is, for me, the central character of the novel. Hawthorne begins with Colonel Pyncheon’s story. The novel ends in front of Colonel Pyncheon’s portrait, which has occupied and looked down on his descendants since the House’s birth. Colonel Pyncheon’s atrocity begins the entire lineage of human sin that is the Pyncheon family, of which the House is synecdoche. This, dear reader, is the true face of the House of the Seven Gables! And even in death, and in bloody murder, -especially in bloody, gruesome, murder – this countenance peers back at us through the pages, meeting your gaze.
Most of the novel’s greatest admirers have concentrated on other elements of the novel. The following account by H.P. Lovecraft, one of the pioneers in the development of 20th century gothic and weird fiction, remains illustrative. Lovecraft called Hawthorne’s novel “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature” and the work of Hawthorne that stands “foremost as a finished, artistic unit among all our author’s weird material.”
“Stealthy horror and disease lurk within the weather-blackened, moss-crusted, and elm-shadowed walls of the archaic dwelling so vividly displayed, and we grasp the brooding malignity of the place when we read that its builder—old Colonel Pyncheon—snatched the land with peculiar ruthlessness from its original settler, Matthew Maule, whom he condemned to the gallows as a wizard in the year of the panic. Maule died cursing old Pyncheon—“God will give him blood to drink”—and the waters of the old well on the seized land turned bitter. Maule’s carpenter son consented to build the great gabled house for his father’s triumphant enemy, but the old Colonel died strangely on the day of its dedication. Then followed generations of odd vicissitudes, with queer whispers about the dark powers of the Maules, and peculiar and sometimes terrible ends befalling the Pyncheons.” H.P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” 1927.
Lovecraft’s summary of House of the Seven Gables is typical of how readers, even very admiring readers, think about the novel. His analysis centers on the gothic atmosphere of The House of the Seven Gables. The House’s “stealthy horror” and “brooding malignity” – descriptive phrases that describe a mood or attitude but, in typical Lovecraftian fashion, present only a facade of being descriptive in the physical sense – give readers a sense of the House as a lurking malevolence. The primary plot details Lovecraft includes do much to reinforce our idea of Hawthorne’s novel as a haunted house novel. Lovecraft recallsMatthew Maule, “condemned to the gallows as a wizard” and died “cursing old Pyncheon,” in vivid language. His allusion to “the dark powers of the Maules,” intrigues us and creates suspense through the amorphous supernatural.
But when Lovecraft gets to Colonel Pyncheon’s death, he says only that the Colonel “died strangely on the day of its dedication.” This phrase “died strangely” does little to alert us to the horrible, byzantine, and still unsolved mystery of Pyncheon’s death, which Hawthorne himself beckons us to abandon as his heroes ride away in a carriage at story’s end.
Well reader, I’m going to do you a real act of kindness here. I’m going to regale you with the tale of how Colonel Pyncheon’s corpse was found. Then we can examine possible causes of his death and, together, see if we can solve this mystery!!
The Scene of the Murder:
It was a beautiful day in Massachusetts. Colonel Pyncheon’s new mansion had just been completed: finished so recently that wood shavings, shingles, and shards of bricks lay scattered about the exterior of the house. Today was to be the mansion’s ceremony of consecration, an event which would, Hawthorne explains, in Puritan culture be both “festive and religious.”Everyone had been invited. From the lowliest laborer to the highest members of the theocracy – elders, deacons, magistrates, including the Reverend Higginson, the high sheriff, and the Lt. Governor. An ox had been roasted whole, a sixty-pound codfish had been “dissolved into a liquid of chowder,” and their commingled scents wafted skyward to greet the guests as they approached.
The house loomed, as Hawthorne writes, “in pride, not modesty.” It was gorgeous, if not grotesque – the house’s seven gables “pointed on every side” of the house into the morning sky. “Spiracles rose from great central chimney. Small gargoyles and imps had been imprinted into the plaster, carved globes of wood placed strategically beneath jutting stories. Within, serving men pointed those with rough and soiled collars to the kitchen, those with velvet garments and embroidered gloves to the parlors.”
Everything was perfect and conventional. Except, Colonel Pyncheon was nowhere to be found. By custom and by courtesy he should have stood in the hall to greet his guests as they arrived. Yet the colonel had sequestered himself in his study, and his servants knew to never, ever disturb the Colonel Pyncheon in his study. Therefore they refused to summon the Colonel, or even to knock on the door as the house filled to capacity.
Finally becoming impatient with the delay and discourtesy, the Lt. Governor himself strode to Pyncheon’s study and knocked firmly and loudly on the intricately carved panels. No response. Still more irritated, the Lt. Governor boomed on the door with the hilt of his sword. Still, no response. Now the guests, whose attention had been seized by the banging on the door, grew silent and gathered about the doors to the study. Finally, the Lt. Governor grew so furious as to disregard the boundaries of propriety and twist the doorknob. It turned smoothly.
The doors flew open as a sudden, sighing gust of wind burst threw the house. There, in the beautifully furnished room, with its fine curtains and fine books arranged on the fine shelves, beneath a freshly-painted portrait of himself, in an elbow chair of carved oak, slumped the Colonel Pyncheon. Papers and envelopes were scattered on the desk before him, but his wide eyes gazed unnaturally toward the gathered crowd which stood and stared hesitantly on the threshold. Finally the Colonel’s grandchild, who was only a young boy, grew bold enough to enter the room and approach the Colonel.
The boy froze halfway into the room and shrieked. Colonel Pyncheon’s mustache and beard were soaked with blood, his shirt stained with the red coagulated goo.
The reason for his stillness, for his absence, was now shockingly clear. Colonel Pyncheon was dead. It is rumored that at this moment of discovery, a loud voice that recalled that of the old Wizard Matthew Maul was heard to say “God hath given him blood to drink!”
Examining the Clues:
Hawthorne, in a move that those familiar with his writing will recognize as typical, gives us more rumors than facts about the Colonel Pyncheon’s death. Therefore, when trying to reconstruct the rest of the scene as a detective might, we have only possible information.This is a disadvantage.
Hawthorne’s explanations for the cause of Colonel Pyncheon’s death are inconsistent. The prominent Boston physician John Swinnerton studied the body and concluded that Pyncheon died of apoplexy. The coroner’s jury, after meeting with the coroner and considering all evidence, reached a verdict of “Sudden Death!” The opinions of among doctors and coroners who examined the corpse, writes Hawthorne indicate a “bewilderment of mind.” In other words, it seems like aspects of the death confused them.At the same time that he undermines the natural causes for Pyncheon’s death, Hawthorne tells his readers that any conclusion of unnatural death can only be based on speculation. Colonel Pyncheon was on of the most wealthy, powerful, and highly-regarded men of his day. His death would have been subjected to the highest scrutiny. If any shred of evidence indicated malfeasance, officials would have pursued it.
It is merely, “tradition,” writes Hawthorne, that is responsible for any suspicions of violence. “Tradition” which, he writes, “sometimes brings down truth that history has yet slip, but is oftener the wild babble of the time.” He then gives us some possible evidence of malfeasance. Hawthorne writes that Maybe:
There were “marks of fingers” on Pyncheon’s throat, a “print of a bloody hand” on his shirt collar, and that his pointed beard was “dishevelled.”
Moments before the discovery of the body, someone had been scene climbing the garden fence behind the house And, the window beside the Colonel’s chair was open at the time of discovery. Had Pyncheon been violently attacked by a secret intruder?
When the door to the room opened, some guests witnessed a skeletal hand at Pyncheon’s throat. The hand faded and disappeared when guests entered the room.
And then, Nathaniel Hawthorne leaves it there. After lingering for pages on the scene of Colonel Pyncheon’s death, tantalizing the reader with the possibility that he was murdered by a rival or, even more sinister, the ghost of Matthew Maule, Hawthorne moves on. The novel fast forwards to the 1820’s, in what Hawthorne calls “the real action of our tale,” and follows the lives of some of Colonel Pyncheon’s descendants.
This is just like old Nathaniel Hawthorne: to introduce the possibility that Colonel Pyncheon was killed, give us a range of evidence ranging from murder, to natural causes, to the supernatural, then disavow all of them.
Reexamining the Evidence:
Colonel Pyncheon was found dead, with blood on his mouth, beard, and shirt. He had been alone in his study for at least an hour. The door was not locked, but nor was anyone conclusively seen entering or leaving the room. No sounds of disturbance were heard until the door to the room was opened.
Hawthorne undermines the validity of all of the evidence he offers thereafter. But since Hawthorne relates to them to the reader, we must at least consider them.
Natural Causes: Dr. Swinnerton determined the cause of death to be apoplexy – which in the late 17th century could mean any internal rupture of organs or blood vessels. The term was often used, though, to describe any loss of consciousness followed by a sudden death. So it could also mean symptoms that we associate with heart attack and stroke. In the absence of any violence, the blood on Pyncheon’s chin may seem consistent with some type of hemorrhaging.
But during the 17th century, medical science was much less exact than today, obs. Physicians had neither an accurate understanding of the how the body worked nor adequate means to detect and explain abnormalities. Based on all of this, the coroner”s jury’s conclusion of “Sudden Death,” which sounds so obvious as to be ridiculous, actually offers us the most accurate, though indecisive, diagnosis that we can accept with any degree of certainty. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t more to the story.
Suicide. If Pyncheon vomited blood, could this not be symptom of poisoning, either by malfeasance or self-administration? This leaves open yet another possibility – did Colonel Pyncheon commit suicide? It’s plausible given the unreliability of the coroner”s diagnosis.
Hawthorne repeatedly refers to Pyncheon’s staunch Puritan beliefs. The religious views of the “old Puritan,” as Hawthorne calls him, would tend to absolutely forbid suicide. Furthermore, Colonel Pyncheon had just completed building the mansion in which generations of his family could now live, on land he had acquired through great effort. As the Reverend Higginson proclaimed at Pyncheon’s funeral sermon,
His duties all performed,–the highest prosperity attained,–his race and future generations fixed on a stable basis, and with a stately roof to shelter them for centuries to come,–what other upward step remained for this good man to take, save the final step from earth to the golden gate of heaven!
Based on Pyncheon’s circumstances, as well as the testimony of peers like Higginson, suicide seems very doubtful.
Murder. Natural Methods: Hawthorne tells us that maybe there were bloody hand prints on Pyncheon’s clothes. He says that maybe someone saw someone climb the garden fence, who could have entered and exited the room unseen through the open window in the study.
It seems reasonable to assume that someone as powerful and unethical as Colonel Pyncheon would have acquired numerous enemies while amassing his family fortune. Reader, I have to consider this one a possibility.
Murder: Supernatural Methods. Hawthorne tells us that maybe there was a skeletal hand to indicate a spectral attacker. Someone could have said “God has given him blood to drink,” a reference to the curse that Matthew Maule uttered at Colonel Pyncheon at the time of his death.
Hawthorne’s mention of Maule, executed as a witch, recalls the possibility of a Spectral Attack. This was an actual thing, an invisible violence said to have been perpetrated by witches during the Salem Witch trials. Spectral evidence, in other words evidence that could not be objectively seen, was accepted by the courts during the Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne’s great grandfather, John Hathorne, a judge in the witch trials, really liked Spectral evidence. Maule’s death would occurred during or just after the Salem Witch Trials, and Pyncheon manner completed just after them.
I don’t know, reader. It’s hard to rule it out.
The more I think about it, reader (and I’ve thought about it a lot), it is almost like Nathaniel Hawthorne wants us to wonder if Colonel Pyncheon was murdered. Hawthorne creates uncertainty surrounding the natural causes, and introduces the possibility of murder by natural and supernatural attack. And if Hawthorne wants us to do something, we should probably do it (at least if that something is in relation to his writings).
But if Colonel Pyncheon was murdered, who did it? How? Why? Hawthorne simply does not give us the clues to solve this mystery between the covers of his 1851 novel.. Hawthorne straddles the border between natural and unexplainable, ending with a nod in the direction that probably, almost likely, maybe, it was just a heart attack or something. Or at least, that is the fate that clearly befalls Pyncheon’s descendant, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, at the end of the novel. Jaffrey Pyncheon dies in the same chair, with the same symptoms, sitting beneath the Portrait of Colonel Pyncheon.
But – and this is where you are lucky – I have new information. And this information comes directly from Hawthorne’s recently recovered Lost Journals.
I still haven’t figured it out completely. His handwriting is hard to read. And he can be just as evasive in his journal as he is in his fiction. But I can tell you this with certainty. Nathaniel Hawthorne told only a fraction of the true story of the House of the Seven Gables in his eponymous novel; he must have deemed the actual events too horrible and shocking to relate to his readers. In some ways, these newly recoveredvolumes bring into doubt not just what we know about Hawthorne, but our very understanding of reality.
Doubt not, there were sinister, eldritch forces at work in the house at the time of Colonel Pyncheon’s death, and I have to conclude that Colonel Pyncheon stood either at the center of them, or had become entangled in their web.
For now, the cause of Colonel Pyncheon’s death remains a mystery. But I’m going to find out who killed him, reader. I’m going to find out. And when I find out, I’m going to tell you first!